Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Not yet scared shitless? You will be if Mr Edward Lucas has anything to do with it

It has long been my contention that one tactic newspapers adopt to try to keep up circulation is to scare their readers shitless. It is a commonplace that ‘bad news is good news’ and that the headline ‘Boy Scout does good deed’ would never sell a single copy, although the game is, in fact, more subtle than that. It can’t all be bad news. The horror and reports of how evil the world is have to be leavened a little with heartwarming pieces in which rampant sentimentality usually plays a significant part to make it all a little more palatable (and keep up sales).

What the bad news is - and occasional what good news is supplied that is necessary to achieve a commercial balance - obviously depends upon the newspaper (and what I call bad news is not the obvious stuff – 2,ooo die in Pakistan earthquake or, as recently, Russian tourist plane crashes in Egypt’s Sinai desert killing all onboard). Just as right-wing and left-wing politicians are said to have dog whistles, a quick blast on which is believed to summon the faithful, so the different newspapers cultivate their own particular schtick.

Here in Britain, for example, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun and the Daily Mail, all seen as being on the right of centre, will resort to horror stories along the lines of ‘Every British family will house two immigrant families under proposed new law’ and ‘EU to tax toenails!’ That kind of stuff always gets the readers huffing and puffing with indignation bordering on fury, and though even the papers themselves will gladly admit it is all outright fiction, that doesn’t matter: no one, but no one remembers what was in yesterday’s paper. It’s today’s horror story that counts.

On the other political wing, the saintly Guardian (‘Nothing too trivial to agonise over’) and the Mirror (or has it now reverted to calling itself the Daily Mirror?) play the same game. So their pages are full of horror stories of how Tory death squads are scouring the shires seeking out folk on benefits and executing them on the spot. Last week, the Mirror (Daily Mirror?) reported that several food banks in the North of England – the North of England always suffers more, apparently - had been firebombed by masked men shouting capitalist slogans.

NB For practical purposes the Independent can also be lumped in with those two caring papers, although it might well deny it is ‘left-of-centre’. The paper is read by folk who, like Guardianistas’ pride themselves on ‘having a conscience’ and ‘being thinking people’, but who for whatever reason can’t for love or money bring themselves to read a paper which is ‘left-wing’. The Independent is also, uniquely among papers the world over, the only publication I know of whose circulation is in minus figures. Add to that very curious fact that it – and its stablemate London’s Evening Standard – are owned and run by the KGB’s successor the FSB, and the paper really does stand out.

Global warming is a special favourite of the Guardian and the Independent: describing its horrors is useful on many levels: not only can readers feel virtuous because they occasionally ditch the car to use a bike or turn off the heating on cold winter nights to ‘save the planet’, they have something to talk about when they meet each other for supper parties (‘When will we learn!’) and can compare energy-saving measures (‘Becky and I sleep in the garden two nights a week’). There are always hours of fun to be had castigating ‘global warming deniers’, universally regarded by thinkers and those who care as the very personification of evil, and if, by chance, a group of them happen upon a sole example of one such denier, they day is complete: waterboarding is the least of his worries.

The psychology behind the strategy of scaring the shit out of its readers is simple: after an hour of reading of all the horror the world has in store for them, it is a moment of pure joy to sit back and reflect on their own less than ideal circumstances and realise, but for the grace of God, they could be. Then, of course, there is the outrage to be savoured: outrage how the evil EU led by a jackbooted Angela Merkel will stop at nothing until Britain is under the Brussels heel; outrage at how evil Tories have made it their life’s work to reduce to miserable penury and beyond ordinary, hardworking folk who ask for nothing more than a portion of fish and chips and an evening watching Downton.

. . .

Every newspaper has is stable of writers, each of whom knows full well what the hand that signs the cheque expects to hear from them. The Daily Telegraph has in recent years employed one Dan Hodges, who still masquerades as a staunch Labourite, but can be relied on to tell the Telegraph readers what complete shits the current bunch of Labour leaders are.

Dan is a former union official and Labour Party apparatchik, and the son of former Labour MP and one-time actress Glenda Jackson, so if he, Labour to his fingertips - apparently - Telegraph readers tell themselves, think Labour has finally and irrevocably lost the plot, well it must be true, mustn’t it, straight from the horses mouth, don’t you know.

The Guardian plays the same game: it has hired on Matthew d’Ancona, a former deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph and then of the – true-blue – Spectator, who in his weekly column of the paper informs readers that the Tories have finally and irrevocably lost the plot and he really doesn’t know what is becoming of the right-of-centre these. Well, Guardian readers can tell with his track record working for the Tory press Matthew must surely know what he is talking about, and if he thinks the Tories have well and truly gone to the dogs – well!

So Telegraph readers and Guardian readers are once again reassured in the respective prejudices, all is well with the world and both papers have staved of bankruptcy for another day by ensuring their readers are still reasonably happy.

Depending upon the topic, all papers have their tame tigers: the Mail, for example, which is perpetually fighting off accusations that it is sexist and racist will counter the charges by getting a well-known ‘feminist’ or a high-profile Asian to write a piece if and when the occasion might demand. The names Jenni Murray, the grande dame of BBC Radio Four’s Woman’ Hour, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown spring to mind.

Both can be relied upon to push the Mail line – more or less a British version of Kinder, Kirche, K├╝che – but given that Murray is a ‘feminist’ and Albhai-Brown is ‘Asian’, the reader is reassured that if even Murray/Albhai-Brown thinks this particular piece of progressive nonsense really has gone too far – well!

. . .

One writer whose picture byline regularly turns up in the Mail every few months is Edward Lucas. And given that Lucas is a ‘senior editor’ at The Economist, a former Moscow bureau correspondent for that paper and a ‘fellow and contributing editor at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington DC, we really should, the Mail hints, take the man seriously.

According to his website Lucas’s ‘expertise includes energy, cyber-security, espionage, Russian foreign and security policy and the politics and economics of Eastern Europe’ he is surely not a man whose views and prognostication we can safely ignore. Lucas’s particular hobby horse is what a complete and utter shit Vladimir Putin is, and warning the West about that dangerous demagogue for several years now.

His latest piece in the Mail outlines how by taking sides with Assad in Syria against Islamic State – and one of his country’s mysteriously crashing out of the sky above the Sinai desert – Putin might well have bitten off more than he can chew. Well, perhaps, or perhaps not. Who knows? I certainly don’t.
The point about Lucas, who is undoubtedly well-informed as a journalist (although I would be careful about pushing the ‘works for The Economist’ tag to much – so once did Graham Hancock who is vying for the title of World’s Greatest Nutter), is that he does bang the drum just a little too hard for my tastes, and that always makes me just a tad sceptical. And to be honest I find it exceptionally difficult to take seriously such polemic when it appears in a tabloid.

Were he to read this, he would undoubtedly retort that my complacency in the face of his dire warnings about Putin simply plays into the hands of that nasty dictator and I mustn’t be at all surprised if within just a few short months I am obliged to eat borscht for breakfast and sing Red Army songs with with no chance of parole. Well, Edward, I’ll take my chances.
The first piece by Lucas I read in the Mail was several years ago, but here are a few of his more recent offerings: comparing Putin to Hitler, why war in Europe is now more likely than ever before, why Russia flying nuclear bombers over Britain should make us very scared indeed and how the death of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has chilling echoes of Stalin’s terror.

So what is my point? Well, it is quite simple: I am a firm believer in the adage that what really is news doesn’t appear in the papers. Or put another way: if you are reading about it in your favourite rag, to all intents and purposes it isn’t really that important. For all his hi-falutin’ contributions to the Center for European Policy Analysis (and what does that mean, what does it do, who finances it?), his years covering Eastern European politics and affairs and his expertise in cyber-spying, Lucas is something of a nine-bob note, a man whose opinion of himself is quite possibly rather high than is healthy. And I also believe the Lucas simply protests too much.

I don’t doubt that Putin is a complete wrong ’un (and the circumstances of the death of Nemtsov are particularly murky) and no one in their right mind would allow him anywhere near the family silver. But is Putin’s behaviour really much different to what the U.S., Britain, France and Germany get up to? At the time Lucas made a big song and dance about Russia’s annexation of the Crimea: this is just a foretaste of what is to come if we don’t shackle the Russian bear now! But forgive me, Edward: just what were the Russians to make of the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and Britain in 2003? What were the Russians to make of the U.S. Britain and Nato’s involvement in Afghanistan.

You might argue, as many do, that ‘we are the good guys and those Ruskies are the bad guys, so what we do has God’s stamp of approval’. The trouble is that’s not how the Russian’s see it. I don’t at all doubt that Lucas has his ‘contacts’ in the security services and I don’t at all doubt that they ‘brief’ Lucas every so often. But I also don’t at all doubt that they tell Lucas just as much as they want him to know but no more and are rather happy to have a man who is invited to rant in the pages of a national tabloid passing on what they would like to pass on.

As for the Mail, of course, Lucas serves a purpose: he can be relied upon to scare the readers shitless, just what they like.

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